I’ve enrolled my two oldest children in a German elementary school. They have until Christmas to learn German and catch up to the rest of their first- or third-grade classes before the risk of flunking out gets to be too high. So far things are going OK, but it’s been a struggle at times, with my children’s general contentment intermixed with some frustration and unhappiness. An administrator at the new school insisted that all children will successfully learn German, but of the Americans we meet who have tried it, about half report having a great experience and half report failing miserably, with both outcomes sometimes found in the same family. There are no guarantees that our experiment in integration wonâ€™t end in disaster. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad father for inflicting this on my children.
My wife and I have known for a long time that we would have to dump our children into this situation–far from the home and friends they’ve previously known, where they don’t completely understand what’s going on and where they have to figure out a lot of things on their own. For us, enrolling our children in school here means giving up control over what our children see and learn (although walking through a German train station or past the perfume advertisements in the drugstore windows is an education in itself), and it even means exposing our children to religious views that may differ from or even oppose their own.
But there are really no other options. There are some things that they can only learn here, immersed in a foreign culture, and now, before their minds lose the flexibility of childhood. We tried to prepare our children for the new experience as best we could, but there are limits on how much anyone can learn from textbooks, and on how much our children are willing to learn from their own parents. While our job as parents is not over by any means, the only way our children can make progress now is for them to leave the family sphere and seek out new experiences. In order to learn more, they need situations where they are forced to make use of the things they have been taught.
My children are not totally unprepared for the challenge. Although temperamentally quite different, they’re both bright kids with unique talents. At the same time, the current situation seems custom-designed to provoke their individual weaknesses. They need to learn to work more diligently, and not to get frustrated so easily, to escape from introversion, and to listen to their teachers. If they can use their talents to overcome their weaknesses, the experience will prepare them to do things they can’t even imagine now, but the hard part is for them to recognize their weaknesses in the first place.
My children aren’t completely alone in their challenge. Together they can rely on each other as family while they’re away from home, and I hope they find good friends as well. As their father, I’m very grateful for the other children who make the effort to befriend them and especially for the teachers who are giving them extra time and attention. I really wish, though, that my children would tell their parents more about their day. Their classroom seems to be populated with people named “I forget,” and the course of their day one hour after another of “I canâ€™t remember.” I’ve dealt before with just about every problem they currently face, and I have a lot of useful things I could tell them, if only they would actually do the things I suggest, if only they would listen to what I’m telling them, if only they would ask.